Kirby Dick’s new documentary, The Bleeding Edge, opens with unnerving B-roll of eerily sleek medical devices: monitors, joint replacements, robotic arms ready to make an incision. Meanwhile, Scott Whitaker, the CEO of AdvaMed, the largest medical technology lobbying firm in the U.S., intones with TED Talk optimism, “What if, by 2050, we have micro-laboratories implanted in our bodies that predict illnesses before we ever get sick?” He’s delivering a sales pitch, and Dick and producer Amy Ziering take a close look at the bargain we’ve made by buying into it.
While Big Pharma may be health care’s most visible boogeyman, The Bleeding Edge contends that the $400 billion medical-device industry wields even greater, and possibly more nefarious, influence. In 2017 alone, the medical-tech industry spent $64 million lobbying Washington. Dick’s newest documentary, available through Netflix, wants to find out what all those lobbying dollars are purchasing and what the ultimate cost is to patients.
Dick is one of the few filmmakers who consistently proves that movies can indeed change the world. He has taken on some of the country’s most uncomfortable and least talked-about subjects and revealed the unsettling truths that powerful institutions would prefer us to ignore. His 2012 documentary, The Invisible War, exposes the epidemic of rape in the U.S. military and the tendency to sweep the issue under the rug rather than address it. Former secretary of defense Leon Panetta and Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, among others, have credited The Invisible War with inspiring a range of reforms to address sexual misconduct in the military. With his following film, The Hunting Ground (2015), Dick looks at the same issue but this time on college campuses, and the release of that film led to the bipartisan introduction of the Campus Accountability and Safety Act.
The exploitation of women’s bodies and the trauma that ensues are again central to Dick’s work in The Bleeding Edge, but in this case the culprits are invasive medical technologies rather than sexual predators. The film features individuals who started out as patients but ended up as casualties. Some are the victims of botched robotic surgeries; others have suffered metal poisoning from hip or knee replacements. The largest population followed in the film is the thousands of women who have endured horrific complications from contraceptive implants. The same questions thread through each heartbreaking story: How did this happen? What’s being done to stop it from happening again?
The answers Dick uncovers are startlingly dismal. Behind the curtain, we find an increasingly common sight: a regulatory system declawed by the financial interests of the very industry it’s meant to regulate, where premarket trials are structured to expedite new products rather than ensure safety and where consumer protections look more like shareholder protections.
Viewers will be aghast to witness the lengths to which the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) goes to stonewall consumer advocates and even retaliate against those who speak up about unsafe products currently on the market. The Bleeding Edge chronicles how an agency founded with the mission to safeguard patients and consumers has devolved into an agency whose primary agenda now is to safeguard corporate profits. The companies under scrutiny, such as Johnson & Johnson and Bayer, declined to be interviewed for the film, which, unfortunately, is to be expected. But so too did the FDA, giving the agency the appearance of a furtive accomplice instead of a public watchdog.
Compromised regulatory bodies are not uncommon these days, and muckraking journalism such as Dick’s is possibly the best fix we have. In the film, we witness women who have experienced ungodly side effects from a contraceptive implant lobby to no avail to get the defective treatment taken off the market. However, immediately following the premiere of The Bleeding Edge at the Tribeca Film Festival this past April, Bayer, the company that produces the implant, shockingly announced it would be discontinuing the product at the end of 2018. All it took was a film and an audience.